[Table of Contents]
The morning sunlight warms the breakfast room with its familiar aura
of honey and peaches, and Bob Edwards is his friendly old self on NPR.
But Blake feels "different," as they say in Minnesota. It doesn't
help that the view is as fine as ever, that the remaining clouds are brilliant
against a blue sky as they drift over Lake Superior toward Wisconsin.
Or that the pine trees all down the hillside are brushed white with fresh
snow, plumes of powder floating from their branches and swirling away
in the wind. All along the street, the porches and hedges have been transformed
into reefs sunken beneath motionless waves of snow, although the snowscape
is already marred by footprints and tire tracks. Soon the snowplow will
scrape the streets, walks will be shoveled, and by mid-afternoon, with
the return of children from school, the yards will erupt in forts and
snowmen, the entire pristine scene morphing into a crumpled text, a history
of the day's duties and desires.
For Blake, during these past three years
in Duluth, the year's first snow has always conjured pleasant memories
of childhood, but this morning the memories remain irritatingly remote.
Not that he spends a lot of time in the mossy ruins, but once in a while....
The fact is that for a month he hasn't felt right, different, and this
morning his throat has gone raw and tight. Each breath slides down like
gravel. He had hoped to share the first snowfall with his wife, but he
has been alone for three days as Sandy visits her father in Minneapolis.
A few months ago she won a nasty battle for power of attorney, a battle
Blake had tried to ignore, and now her father is dying in Swedish Hospital.
During these three days alone, as autumn
spun itself all in a blur into winter, Blake has become increasingly aware
of the soundless figures that lurk just on the edge of his vision, observing
him. When he turns to look they always vanish, slipping off behind a door
or around a corner, avoiding confrontation like frightened deer. When
his mother lost her eyesight a few years ago, she would talk about "seeing"
someone always with her, just off her left shoulder, but the doctor had
assured her that the explanation was physiological.
There is a television show called Sliders,
and he wonders if it deals with phenomena similar to his new visitors.
Either his gliders are real or they're what his colleagues in the sciences
call "instrument artifacts," false data produced by the measuring
device, in this case the eye or brain. The thought that they are real
is absurd, and the other thought is worse. Maybe that is why he found
himself the other day, literally found himself, in the New Age section
at Barnes & Noble leafing through a book on the occult. He looked
about guiltily, like a man in a trench coat reading pornography, and replaced
the book on its shelf, reminding himself of his scorn for all the props
and characters of superstitionbending spoons, aliens who play doctor,
weeping statues, and chummy angels. These things are brain dust, nothing
more. We're a foolish animal, making devils and fairies from our fears
and desires. And yet ... yesterday he thought he heard a child's footsteps
running across the bedroom floor upstairs. It must simply have been wind
in the trees, but hairs rose on the back of his neck. And this morning,
preparing to shave, his face had seemed unfamiliar to him, something rising
Pushing aside his coffee mug and pill bottles,
he reaches for the stack of student essays that has rested fallow for
a week. He is only a part-time teacher now, having chucked his position
at Tulane three years ago to live in Duluth, where Sandy, also freshly
adrift from a belly-up marriage, had children in high school. The girl
has just taken her sprinkle of freckles to Grinell College in Iowa, and
the boy is now pruning his trial beard at Carleton in southern Minnesota.
Blake had known Sandy for a few years before their marriage and was always
amazed at the time she spent on her children, the swim meets, the music
lessons, the trips to the library. Now they're gone.
His own son is gone too, but differently.
Ronnie did not do well at Tulane, too often blurred by drugs, and Blake
had warned him that he would end up out in the cold. Perhaps for spite
Ronnie quit school, tossed a duffel bag in his old Corolla, and headed
up Interstate 55 for Canada. Blake stood on the porch waving goodbye,
his arms performing the heart's disabled semaphore, and later that day
he wept among objects left behind in Ronnie's rooma skateboard,
his aquariumwondering how he had failed his son's boyhood. Now he
recalls isolated moments of Ronnie's childhood, moments that grow vague
and turn to smoke at either end: the lost dog, the stolen bicycle, the
cheeks glazed with tears. And the girl Ronnie brought home one night,
lovely and shy as a butterfly. Blake and Ronnie had never communicated
much, and Ronnie's last two phone calls have been over half a year apart.
Maybe if there had been more ball games, more fishing trips, more....
On the radio Morning Edition is
over, and now motes dance in the air by the window to Branford Marsalis
playing Faure's "Pavane." Outside the wind has lessened, and
the child in his red cap continues to toss about in the same place by
the alley, perhaps more slowly as though he too is moving to the pavane.
Blake turns again to the papers, grading four in a single effort of concentration,
circling the misspellings and occasionally observing that a sentence is
garbled or that an assertion needs support.
The scream of the telephone gives him a
start that subsides into a wash of worry. Maybe it's Ronnie again. The
conversation yesterday had not gone well, Ronnie garbled and drunk ...
or something ... and Blake suspicious that the money he seemed to plead
for (nothing was clear) would be traded for whatever it is they snort
or pop these days. It isn't that Blake lacks funds. On the contrary, he
played the academic game at Tulane as smoothly as Marsalis plays the sax,
schmoozing where schmoozing was needed, earning royalties on his textbook,
and becoming the highly visible and stipended head of an institute on
literary theory. He invested fortunately and ultimately received a plump
inheritance when his mother cashed in her mortal coil. In the final New
Orleans years he measured time with a Rolex and spanned distances in a
Jaguar. But after Blake's divorce, Ronnie stumbled up against the law
one spaced-out night and was in and out of rehab programs before lighting
out for Toronto. Now Blake insists that he won't finance the blowing of
his son's circuits.
As he stands and turns toward the phone,
rehearsing his lecture on self-destruction, a form glides again toward
the basement stairway like stage mist drifting into the wings, or like
a presentiment slipping back into some cellar of the mind. It occurs to
him that Ronnie became a sort of glider, slipping out of sight while Blake
revved his Jag and polished his prose. And Blake himself had drifted away
from Ronnie's mother in those years when pretty and pliant graduate studentsusually
not the scholars of the Ophelia Schoolwere a chain of daisies.
The child across the street is motionless
behind his snowdrift, and it's is odd that he has played in one spot for
the past forty-five minutes on a cold morning. The radio had said nineteen
degrees. Then it dawns. Perhaps the child hasn't been playing. Perhaps
he has been stuck in the snowdrift, struggling to free himself. If that's
the case, then his stillness now could mean....
Blake doesn't know the parents' names,
let alone a phone number, and the police could take half an hour to arrive.
His throat is dry and inflamed and he is dizzy when he stands, but he
must go out. He struggles into a jacket in the front entry, and as he
closes the outside door behind him he hears the phone ring. The snow is
nearly to his knees, and he has not wasted time tugging on boots. He plunges
around the corner of the house and then across the street, stumbling and
high-stepping, clutching his collar about his neck, dreading what the
coming moments may reveal. But as he approaches the snowdrift, things
"Jesus Christ," he mutters.
It isn't a child at all, and Blake realizes
that the stake with its red flag, all but hidden now behind the drift,
had been there all autumn long, marking the corner of a garden where,
perhaps, some landscaping had been intended. What had made him think that
the flag was the capped head of a little boy, and that his own footprints
would document a heroic effort rather than an old man's folly? What sort
of stupid drama had he, by way of misinterpretaion, written into the wind
Without overshoes, gloves, or cap, each
frozen breath slicing down his throat like a knife and his nose flooding
onto his lips, he is a miserable child himself. The wind picks up again,
careening down the alley, and clouds have darkened the stage. Snow whispers
down from the branches of a pine, and as he turns away from the misread
scene another observer glides away into its twilight world. He wipes his
nose on his sleeve and stamps his numbing feet, absurdly reluctant to
begin the battle back through the snow to Sandra's house, which is dark
and empty and seems somehow to be sliding to a great distance beyond the
street and up the hillside, as though not merely the universe but the
earth itself were an expanding ball of ice. Blake realizes that he has
probably locked himself out and that, in any case, the phone has stopped